THE PHYSICS / PHILOSOPHY HOWLER: Einstein reads his book aloud!

WEDNESDAY, JULY 14, 2021

The teenaged niece's dilemma: Making Einstein easy—comprehensible—isn't an easy task.

It wasn't an easy task even for Einstein himself! Consider the book he wrote for general readers all the way back in 1916, as his worldwide fame had begun taking form.

Einstein devised his special theory of relativity in his "miracle year"—1905—when he was just 26. In Walter Isaacson's 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Isaacson describes what happened next: 

A decade after that, in 1915, he wrested from nature his crowning glory, one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had evolved through thought experiments. 

As Isaacson explains, Einstein's fame had begun to take hold at this point. A publisher approached him with what was, at least in theory, an excellent idea: 

Einstein should write an account of relativity which would make his revolutionary ideas and discoveries accessible to general readers. So the publisher sensibly said.

The book was published in German in 1916. It appeared in English in 1920. It remains in print today. 

That said, was Einstein able to make Einstein easy in this historic book? Was he able to explain relativity in a way the general reader would be able to understand? 

In our view, that didn't happen. As part of his story of Einstein's "life," Isaacson explains the process by which the book was written:

[In 1916], he produced an even more understandable version [of his work]—a book for the lay reader, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, that remains popular to this day. To make sure that the average person would fathom it, he read every page out loud to Elsa [Einstein]'s daughter, Margot, pausing frequently to ask whether she indeed got it. "Yes, Albert," she invariably replied, even though (as she confided to others) she found the whole thing totally baffling.

Elsa Einstein was Einstein's cousin (and later, his second wife). At that time, Margot Einstein was his 16-year-old niece.

According to Isaacson's account, Margot Einstein was too much in awe of her famous uncle to tell him she didn't understand the passages he was reading aloud from his (well-intentioned) book. 

And yet, according to Isaacson's account, this is the way Einstein decided that the average person would be able to understand the book, which remains in print to this day. From this, we can draw a simple conclusion:

Einstein was one of human history's great intellectual giants. That doesn't mean that he was blessed with special skills when it came to making his work "understandable"—when it came to explaining things to us non-specialist shlubs.

The book which Einstein read aloud is still in print today. It's adorned with blurbs, supplied by the publisher, about how accessible it will be for the general reader. 

In the weeks to come, we'll look at one key part of the book—at an explanation which, just on its face, doesn't seem to make sense. 

In the passage to which we refer, Einstein explains—or seems to explain; or attempts to explain—a basic concept commonly referred to as "the relativity of simultaneity." 

In Isaacson's telling, the concept came to Einstein in the spring of 1905, on "a beautiful day in Bern." In Isaacson's telling, Einstein, "while talking with a friend, took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics."

(We have no doubt that he did.)

Isaacson describes this as a "eureka moment"—as the moment when "the key insight" which would lay at the heart of Einstein's "most famous [scientific] paper" suddenly came to this brilliant theoretical physicist.

This was Einstein's "key insight!" In his biography of Einstein, in his chapter on special relativity, Isaacson reproduces the way Einstein explained this matter "in a 1916 book written to explain this to nonscientists." 

Plainly, he's referring to the way Einstein explained this key insight in Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, the general interest book which remains in print to this day. 

As Isaacson describes the content of Einstein "eureka moment," he carefully tracks the explanation offered in Einstein's own book. In 2015, so did Nova, as part of a PBS hundred-year retrospective.

Isaacson tracks the explanation offered in Einstein's own book. But does the explanation make sense? 

Did it make sense in Einstein's book? Does it make sense in Isaacson's? Did it make sense when Einstein read the passage aloud to his niece—when Margot Einstein told her uncle that yes, she did understand?

We'll examine that explanation at a later point in our ruminations. For today, let's say this:

We're not suggesting that something was "wrong" with Einstein's "key insight." We're not suggesting that something is wrong in the engaging, highly literate way Isaacson lays out these basic stories—basic stories from Einstein's astonishing life.

Regarding Einstein's universe, we're asking a different question. We're asking if anyone, Einstein included, has ever found a way to explain or describe that realm in a way which is accessible to the average person.

Has anyone ever made Einstein easy? Beyond that, we offer a second question:

To what extent are book reviewers and general readers able to see, or just to say, that no, we don't understand? 

At one time, that was Margot's dilemma. Even today, is it ours?

Back in 1988, one reviewer after another said that Stephen Hawking's best-selling book was lucid, accessible, comprehensible, even easy to read. In his "miracle column" in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen said, in the face of this onslaught, that he didn't understand.

Five months later, the Post's Charles Krauthammer reported the same incomprehension. The columnists suggested that modern physics has reached a point where it simply can't be explained to the average reader.

Nineteen years after that, Isaacson's book appeared—and we strongly recommend it. It's a well-crafted, highly literate account of Einstein's remarkable life.

Concerning Einstein's universe, we'd call the book very murky. And yet, the book is filled with blurbs in which scholars and critics assert how clearly and lucidly Isaacson has managed to lay out the science.

Tomorrow, we'll return to one of Isaacson's first explanations—to his page 3 explanation involving the trampoline and the bowling ball. 

This metaphor is widely employed when writers explain—or seem to explain; or attempt to explain—Einstein's theory concerning the "warping" or "curvature" of the "fabric" of something called "spacetime." 

Isaacson turned to this metaphor very early in his book. Wisely, though, as we noted in Monday's report, he decided to throw in his joke: 

"Okay, it's not easy," he admits on page 4. At that point, he throws in his joke.

The trampoline / bowling ball metaphor is quite widely employed—but does anyone understand it? Sure, we can repeat or recite the words. But do we know what the words mean?

Also this:

When reviewers and scholars all say that they do understand, are we humans perhaps engaged in a very old human practice?

Are we humans, here in the West, "seeing ourselves from afar?"

Tomorrow: Back to Isaacson's joke


25 comments:

  1. So, dear Bob, you don't understand the space-time continuum. And Albert Einstein, iirc, didn't understand quantum mechanics.

    So what. What's so remarkable here, dear Bob? And who cares? Go grow some tomatoes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Somerby says that others may be untruthful ("seeing themselves from afar") when they claim to understand what is written about Einstein's work. He doesn't seem to understand that some people may understand it, while others will not. People differ in their capacities to grasp meaning, to visualize what is being described, to think about abstractions. People are not all alike their thinking.

    Based on what I've seen Somerby say here, I find it likely that most others may understand written passages that are opaque to Somerby. Just as Somerby is blind to his own limitations, he may be blind to the meanings conveyed in such books. If he cannot understand individual differences, there may be many things he doesn't understand.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'there may be many things he doesn't understand.'

      The only thing Somerby understands is defending DJT, Roy Moore and other Trumpbots.

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  3. Somerby asks whether anyone understands the bowling ball/trampoline metaphor. Of course there are people who understand it. Why would he think there aren't?

    ReplyDelete
  4. It is a short step from suggesting that those who read explanations of Einstein's work don't truly understand them, to saying that Einstein himself didn't understand his own work, to saying that such work is meaningless, empty, trivial, as Somerby has said previously about Godel's theorem.

    What I don't understand is what Somerby gets out of trashing science. How do any of us benefit by throwing away the achievements of scientists?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'What I don't understand is what Somerby gets out of trashing science.'

      Because he is a Trumptard who is disdainful of learning and knowledge.

      Delete
    2. @1:11 PM -- Einstein's theory of relativity is about the real world. It has real consequences, such as nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

      Godel's theorem is about am abstract structure of mathematics. It has no real world consequences.

      Delete
    3. David, go tell a computer scientist or cognitive scientist that Godel's theorem has no real world consequences. That is total nonsense.

      Delete
  5. If only his niece could have been honest, perhaps he could have explained more. I probably read that 1916 book when I was 17 myself. Probably just jumped over any lack of understanding. A bit like my ACT experiment. Before taking the ACT, I was trying to learn new words. Decided that while reading my latest Asimov book that I would write down and look up every word that I did not understand.

    I did not expect to find any words, since I was not aware of not understanding words in previous Asimov books. To my surprise, I came up with about a dozen words from "Pebble in the Sky". Had I not been trying to study, I would have just jumped over those words, without losing any enjoyment or comprehension of the larger story.

    I think Bob is going to eventually reach the point where he claims that the statements cannot be understood, because they in fact do not make any sense.

    The example of the bowling ball on the trampoline. I think the quote said something like - it explains gravity without the need for a mysterious force. Except that now, instead of having a force from earth's mass that reaches out and holds the moon, you now have a force that somehow bends space itself. Which is just as mysterious as the first force.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Someone that gets it! That's a great comparison, when we read a sentence with a word we are unfamiliar with in it, we infer the meaning of the word by context. But that means we're missing out on fully understanding the sentence, because there's typically more to the word's definition than what the context conveys.

      Your analysis of the bowling ball metaphor is also spot on. While it moves the reader closer to understanding the components, they are stuck not being able to fully grasp the whole system.

      Delete
    2. There is no reason why someone who reads a single book intended for nonexperts should understand something at the same level as someone who has studied that subject for many years or thought about it for a lifetime. Why should the reader of a trade book be able to "fully grasp the whole system" based on a metaphor?

      Delete
    3. I don't know, I can't get over your wording. "There is no reason why..." and "Why should the reader..."

      Why shouldn't they? People reading and understanding complex ideas and systems is a good thing.

      I know that's not what you're going for but your wording is strange and I sense your not willing to have an open mind on this.

      Delete
    4. You're kidding, right? I've been reading Somerby since 1990. I have too much data on him to have an "open mind" about any given essay.

      You should read my comment as a reaction to what Somerby said. Somerby proposes that no one can understand such a book and that no one can "fully grasp the whole system" based on what is written in it. I am saying that it is unreasonable to expect anyone to do so. Of course there are people who will read and understand these books, but it is unreasonable to expect everyone to do so. Somerby is claiming that because Cohen and Krauthammer admitted not understanding the explanations, that no one else does either, and that it is not possible to simplify these ideas.

      I do believe that Einstein and Hawking are understood by at least some other physicists and that there may be talented amateurs with sufficient background to understand them too. But it think it takes a real background to understand them and that a physics-made-easy approach isn't going to provide the same level of understanding as actual training would (the kind of understanding Somerby seems to be demanding).

      That is true of every "Made Easy" book ever written. The reason why someone buying such a book and reading it without sufficient background wouldn't understand it fully is that understanding complex ideas does require a foundation in the subject, beyond merely reading such a book.

      I say this as a retired college professor whose job has been to introduce complexities to beginning students. Learning doesn't come easy. It requires work. That work is often fun, if you are curious and interested in a subject.

      I have no idea what you mean by having an open mind on this.

      Delete
  6. ‘The trampoline / bowling ball metaphor is quite widely employed—but does anyone understand it? ‘

    The idea that two objects attract each other, a thing called ‘gravity’— does anyone understand that?

    Gravity isn’t light, so it isn’t photons. It isn’t electromagnetic force.

    So what is it? No one knows.

    The analogy of the trampoline provides an example from our human experience that more or less models the behavior of the solar system. Gravity in this example is the warping of the trampoline by the bowling ball, the smaller balls naturally move towards the larger bowling ball; thus the behavior of the solar system makes sense if we think of space as a fabric that can be warped.

    Oftentimes, physicists use these kinds of conventionalizations to help visualize what is observed. Sometimes, what is observed is only accurately described with mathematics. Whether space is truly like a fabric is not necessarily as important as whether the analogy of a fabric helps us make sense of the observable universe.

    Why is Somerby hung up on this?

    ReplyDelete
  7. 'modern physics has reached a point where it simply can't be explained to the average reader.'

    Special Relativity is understandable to someone with high school physics and maths. So, I would say the average reader can understand SR if they put some effort into it.

    However, I doubt special relativity can be understood by someone who thinks they can act as a useful idiot for Trump for 4 years and still claim to be a liberal. Such a person (i.e. SOmerby) is a Trumptard, a useless idiot with reading abilities far below those of mortal men.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Can’t wait for the next installment, Bob. It’s been a great series.

    ReplyDelete
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